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I have said many times, far too many times, that it was time for me to look for new geographies, to leave Kabul and go somewhere else. Instead here I am, writing again from Kabul where I moved back full time, the reason being a request that was impossible to say no to.
I have been asked to work as Acting Director of the Afghan Institute of Arts and Architecture in Turquoise Mountain.
The Institute is a little corner of paradise in the heart of the old city of Kabul, a modern structure built in mud and wood according to traditional techniques.
The school was founded ten years ago to respond to the risk that traditional crafts would disappear because of war, migrations and carelessness. At the onset of the Taliban regime, in fact, many traditional masters left the country for fear or lack of opportunities thus interrupting the cycle of knowledge transmission and creating a void that was difficult to fill. Those who had stayed back in Afghanistan were struggling to survive – Ustad Hadi, for example, who once was a woodcarver at the king’s court had ended up selling bananas in a wheelbarrow on the street to feed his family.
The initial mandate of the Institute was to gather the threads of a story that risked to be forgotten; today we have one hundred students who are learning the arts of calligraphy and miniature painting, jewellery and gem cutting, woodwork and pottery with the blue glazing coming from a local plant. They are girls and boys, between fifteen and twenty years of age, who are learning a craft and a trade, while contributing to the active conservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.
Working in a school like this, preserving the stories from the past while looking at the future, is a serious challenge and a great responsibility. It is also a unique opportunity to think about the role of traditional knowledge – slowly sedimented across generations – in relation to the fast pace of contemporary society; to think about how to keep it relevant and sustainable without anachronisms or the romanticisation of an ideal past.
There are places that seem to be made of the stuff of legend: you know that they exist, that they are there somewhere, but their physical dimension remains abstract and mysterious.
The synagogue of Kabul is one of those places: over these past years it has been a place that almost only existed in an imaginary space– until recently.
I had read a number of articles about “the last remaining Jew of Kabul”; about his bad temper, his passion for whiskey and about the dispute with another Jew – who died in the meanwhile – to claim the right to be called the last Jew. Many colourful stories, but nothing specific about the synagogue itself.
A few days ago, without too much planning and almost by chance, we manage to visit the synagogue with three of my colleagues. As if following a script, Mr Simantov – the last Jew – answers to our desire to go for a visit with the request of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. We don’t obviously have any bottle with us on a random Saturday afternoon so we try to negotiate only to hear in return that he does not do things on credit for anyone. We go away a bit disappointed for the missed opportunity. Loneliness, however, must have won Mr Simantov over as he calls us back within a few minutes and says that instead of a bottle, for this one time, he could make do with some cash.
While a lot, or maybe too much, has been written about him, too little has been written about the synagogue.
From the outside the signs of a place of worship are almost non existent; only the eye that already knows where to look will find the stars of David carved out in the windows or decorating the battered turquoise metal gate. At first sight, the door seems to be ajar; it is instead curved up and a bit stuck for being so rarely used. As we look around a bit perplexed, the local cigarette sellers directs us to the back door: you need to go through a bright orange restaurant selling chips and kebabs to reach it. Once you go through the kitchen and cross the building’s threshold the brightness of the neon tubes is replaced by dim light and the stale smell of old fried oil. The turquoise stair railing is an intricate embroidery of iron stars. Hardly anyone climbs up the stairs, the layer of dust is thick and homogeneous.
We spend some time talking to Mr Simantov, who now lives in what used to be the women’s prayer room. It is painted bright green and has a maroon moquette; the gas stove leaks slightly, it makes me cough. Simantov tells us that the synagogue was built in 1966 with the donations from the Jewish community in Herat; he says that in the good old times there used to be hundred and fifty Jewish families living in Kabul. He says it is not because of the Taliban that they left, but because they migrated to Israel and the state of Israel doesn’t give a piss (verbatim) to restore the synagogue that has been damaged by years of conflict. The community itself has never been a target, war has no preference.
We finally get to see the synagogue. Just outside the door there is an old toilet covered in dust and the glass of many windows is broken. We enter and, as we cross the room, our steps leave footprints in the dust. The synagogue doesn’t have a copy of the Torah, but in a cupboard there are old papers and documents eaten up by time and moths. The lamps on the walls are fixed on small plaques that carry the names of the dead.
It is a silent, desolate place. It is abandoned. It is memory’s cemetery, a memento mori, a monument to time.
For those who, like me, work for the preservation of heritage, places like these speak directly to the heart: they are both an accusation and an invite, a request to stop and think. You can’t fight against time, you can’t save every place, every stone, every monument. You need to learn to chose, to let go, to accept that abandon itself has a message to communicate. But then we can, and possibly should, keep telling stories so that these wonderful memory’s cemeteries can continue to survive.
Below is the keynote address I delivered in occasion of the Fall Meeting of the Global Consortium for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (GCPCH)
It is a great privilege to be here today and have the opportunity to deliver this address on Advocacy and Policies.
Considering the amazing amount of institutional knowledge in the room, the best way I can meaningfully contribute to the conversation is by bringing to the table my experience from “the ground.”
Over the past fifteen years I have been working as an independent researcher supporting artists, cultural practices and productions in countries in conflict. For me, it is hardly possible to think of cultural heritage without thinking of people first.
I would like to begin by showing you a short art film from Afghanistan.
The film, directed by Farahnaz Yusufi, is titled Ruyeeha-e Parihaa which in Farsi means Angel’s Dream.
There is not much to add to such a testament to the power of ingenuity. Farahnaz Yusufi opens for us a window to the never-ending quest for poetry. In the film, she also makes a complex reference to Sufi mystical culture that I have no time to unpack now, but we can certainly return to later in the discussion. Works like this, which combine a multiplicity of emotional, cultural and symbolic layers, interpellate us – as professionals who work towards the protection, preservation and revival of cultural heritage – with many fundamental questions. These questions, rather than the answers to them, will be the fil rouge that will guide my presentation.
A few days ago I met up with Baqer Ahmedi, one of the most talented emerging artists in Afghanistan, whom I have had the pleasure to mentor since he started his artistic journey. He updated me about his work and told me that he was not entirely satisfied with the progress he was making: for several months he could not draw as he had ran out of wasli paper and there wasn’t any available to buy in Kabul. Baqer Ahmedi is a contemporary artist, who works on a kind of handmade paper called wasli that is traditionally used for miniature painting – you can see here a couple of images from his work.
Baqer is about to leave Afghanistan as many artists have done before him. He’s going to Pakistan in a couple of weeks to begin his bachelor’s degree in Lahore. There he will be able to buy more paper and resume drawing. His matter of fact tone in telling this story stayed with me: there was no resentment. This is how often things are there in Afghanistan; it is normal not to have paper and not to be able to draw: there’s not much else to add.
It is from this lack of paper that we should probably start when we think of our role in protecting and reviving cultural heritage.
Luckily not the whole world is experiencing the same extreme conditions of Afghanistan, but I believe there’s much to learn from situations of conflict. I have just come back from Kabul, where I have been based for the past five years. In spite of the immense problems that the country is facing to shape itself into a mature and diverse nationstate, it is absolutely remarkable to see the relevance and centrality that culture and heritage play in the political debate.
During the last year, as a programme specialist with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, I worked closely with the Afghan Minister of Information and Culture to design a roadmap for both a National Cultural Policy and for the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The challenges have been and still are enormous. I would like to share some thoughts on my experience and perhaps we can further discuss them in our roundtable later on.
Working at the crossroad between international organisations, funding agencies and public institutions requires a lot of juggling. There are petty power games, there is the pressure to show progress and present deliverables, there is the aspiration to be relevant, to be accurate, to be meaningful. It is a jigsaw made of tons of tiny moving pieces: each of them requires full attention as the puzzle needs them all in order to be complete. Any attempt at cutting corners simply backfires. The greatest dilemma is between the urge to be efficient and the ethical desire to be sustainable.
Here the biggest variables are “the people” and time.
Because of my personal political history, I have always distrusted top-down decisions. This attitude has a profound influence on how I conceive my work. More on this later.
To go back to the issue of “the people” and time, when working in the context of so-called developing countries, our activities are measured by the strict sets of deadlines dictated by donors’ fundings. It is the logic of projects that orientates us along with the requirement to show short-term tangible results matched against large, sustained financial investments. This is all well and good, but it is also extremely easy to lose perspective and forget the big picture.
Most of what I do is to work with people, but working with people requires time and the kind of time that is needed to gain trust and build an equal relationship is out of sync with the temporality of a project-driven modality.
Let’s think of the National Cultural Policy for Afghanistan as an example. The quickest I could envision a roadmap for its development was on a three year scale with at least two rounds of nation-wide consultation with civil society organisations, local elders, religious and community leaders. In a country like Afghanistan, though, even three years into the future are difficult to envision: hardly any donor engages in such a “longterm” commitment, many of the decisions are personality-driven and so directions change along with the high turnover of the people in charge. Moreover, from next April the new electoral season will begin and the uncertainty that this entails may discourage anyone to engage in anything that at this point would appear utterly impossible.
I do not intend to paint a hopeless scenario here, I am rather trying to think out loud about the rationale that is behind what may seem a more pragmatic and certainly faster approach, whereby experts are brought into the picture for short-term consultancies to give answers and supposedly solve problems. Not always, however, is the specific professional competence of these experts paired with a nuanced understanding of the complexity and uniqueness of the context.
This way of working raises a number of questions. Will this ever be impactful? Will the results ever last? Will people ever feel ownership of any of the decisions made in such a detached manner?
The answer to this lack of space and time is often found in advocacy. An unavoidable component of every project proposal, it becomes the way to reach out to the people, to involve them, to make sure that we tick the box of inclusiveness.
In this sense, the idea of advocacy is often mistaken with public campaigning, with large scale mobilisations that bring attention to pressing issues. By doing this, we hope to inculcate new ideas, to communicate to the people the urgency of concentrating our efforts for the preservation of physical and intangible heritage. Besides actions taken within the institutional framework, there are also special events that serve the same purpose.
Here are a couple of examples of individual initiatives that have quite successfully brought to the public attention elements of endangered cultural heritage.
In 2015, Zhang Xinyu and Liang Hong, two Chinese philanthropes, built in Bamiyan a 3D laser projector to create a 50-meter-tall hologram of the Buddhas that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. This hologram was presented in a public event where 150 people participated.
Another beautiful example is the “before and after” series of photographs that Joseph Eid took in 2016 in Palmyra.
Expressions like these are significant examples of advocacy, but I believe it is important to think beyond them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against campaigning and public mobilisation. I am however suspicious of an approach to advocacy that is limited to that. In these terms, in fact, advocacy becomes a tactic, almost a quick fix instead of a form of strategy.
I just finished reading a book by Italian psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati titled L’ora di Lezione. Per un’erotica dell’insegnamento.
There is no English translation of the book yet, the title roughly means The Lesson’s Hour. For an Erotic Approach to Teaching. The book addresses the profound crisis that the Italian school system is undergoing. It looks at how the great social transformations of the last four decades have had an impact on School (with capital S) as an institution as well as on the role that teachers play in the educational enterprise. This is not the right time to go into further detail about the book, but there is one point that Recalcati makes that may be useful for our discussion. He believes that teachers should reclaim their role in presenting to the students the objects of knowledge as erotic objects. In other words, the task of the teacher is to activate the desire to know. In Socratic terms, this is an unearthing process rather than an imposition. The maieutic art of teaching recognises potentials, nurtures desire and facilitates the space of expression.
I wonder if we can use the same model and re-think of advocacy in such terms. This will require, however, a serious shift in attitude.
A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at a gathering of geographers and GIS experts in Bangalore in South India on the role that mapping can play in heritage preservation. Most of the participants came from a non proprietary OpenStreetMap (and a free software) background and the discussion that followed ended up focussing on the possibility of communities’ involvement and participation in the identification and geo-localisation of heritage sites. At this point a member of the audience, the only urban planner in the room, stood up and quite forcefully stated that people don’t know what is relevant; it is therefore our duty to teach them the importance of heritage. She left the room soon after, but the echo of her statement informed the rest of the conversation.
The presumption that we, all of us in a position of power and responsibility, know better than “the people” is a scary beast and it encages the nature of heritage within narrow and “managerial” parameters.
Statements like these are problematic at a multiplicity of different levels and they are – whether in a spoken or unspoken fashion – more common than one would be willing to admit. The first order of troubles comes from the fact that we (the experts, the bureaucrats, the academics) set ourselves apart from them, the people. We forget that beyond our expertise it is our cultural roots to make us who we are – be it by embracing or by opposing them. Somewhere, somehow, beyond our professional lives, we belong, we are members of a community and we are shaped and defined by a set of cultural practices, places and meanings that we share with others.
It is remarkable how quick we are in forgetting this when we wear our professional hats.
The second layer of problems with such statements comes from the fact that they ossify the idea of heritage within strict rules and regulations thereby ignoring its granular and embodied nature. In both physical and intangible terms, heritage is malleable and ever-changing, it is that particular tree, that folktale, this street corner that a community aggregates around and identifies with.
When my sister tells the story of where we come from, she loves to say that local dialects change every few kilometres and with every single village. What sets our hometown apart, she would go on, is the fact that we don’t have any distinctive dialect as the city was entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 1915.
It is apocryphal stories like this one that help us shape our narratives as individuals who belong to a place and a community. It is stories like these that perpetuate a notion of living traditions.
I have recently discovered an incredibly inspiring document written under the auspices of UNESCO in 1998 in occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities, which quite simply responds to the rights we claim with a set of duties and responsibilities that we have in order for our rights to come alive.
The Declaration is a manifesto of the ethics of responsibility and helps us conceiving the shift between moral and legal duties: it is about what we ought to do in order to guarantee the survival of the universal democratic values we cherish and claim as fundamental.
The strive towards equality and meaningful participation in public affairs is at the core of the document.
Relevant to our context, Chapter 11 of the Declaration is dedicated to Education, Art and Culture. Within this section, article 38 reminds us that within communities there is both an individual and a collective responsibility to provide a framework for and to foster arts and culture.
It is on this note that I want to conclude my address today.
As professionals who work towards the preservation of heritage – as well as as individuals who belong to a particular community – our job is also our duty.
When we create the conditions for the protection and the full enjoyment of cultural heritage we are basically performing our civic, obligatory and reciprocal duty as citizens.
Sono appena atterrata a Kabul dopo più di quattro mesi di assenza, la lontananza più lunga in questi cinque anni.
Mi ricordo che una volta il mio amico Ty, che a quel punto mancava da Kabul da un po’, mi aveva chiesto di raccontargli l’odore di Kabul così come mi colpiva appena atterrata. E’ passato qualche anno e mi sono accorta di non averlo mai fatto: meglio tardi che mai.
La prima cosa che arriva alle narici, “in corpo e spirito,” è la polvere: che sfrega sull’asfalto, che copre le rose, che crea una patina opaca che offusca la vista. E poi c’è l’odore della plastica che si scioglie: sono le guarnizioni dei finestrini delle macchine che aspettano per ore al sole per via del traffico o della mancanza di alberi. A proposito di traffico, i tubi di scappamento delle vecchie e ammaccate Toyota Corolla contribuiscono non poco alla miscela di effluvi. E poi ci sono gli odori che si costruiscono nella testa: quello che viene dal camion di cocomeri passato all’incrocio o quello di sudore e gioventù nello scuolabus pieno di ragazzine bloccato davanti a me, con i finestrini chiusi nonostante il caldo, e che mi hanno fatto compagnia per buona parte della strada con smorfie e linguacce e risate attraverso il vetro. C’è l’odore dell’estate che finisce e dell’autunno che si insinua con quel retrogusto di umido nell’aria e la previsione del nero pungente del fumo delle stufe a segatura. E infine c’è l’odore del ritorno che, nonostante i dubbi e le esitazioni, ti accoglie come un abbraccio di benvenuto da parte di un vecchio amico.
I have just landed in Kabul after almost four months, it is the longest I have been away in these five years.
I remember that once my friend Ty, who at that point had not been in Kabul for quite some time, asked me to write him about the smell of Kabul as it would hit me as soon as I arrived. It has been a few years since, but never got around doing it. So here I am, better later than never.
The first thing that reaches the nostrils, “in body and spirit,” is dust: as it rubs against the asphalt, as it covers rose bushes, as it creates an opaque patina that makes everything blurry. And then there is the smell of melting plastic: it is the rubber frames of car windows that wait for hours under the sun, either because of traffic or for the lack of trees. Speaking of traffic, the exhaust of old, battered Toyota Corolla heavily contributes to the mix. Besides the actual smells, there are those you build in your head: like the one that may come from the watermelons stored in the truck that crossed the road; or that of sweat and youth of the school bus full of little girls driving before us with closed windows despite the heat. They kept me company for a good part of the road pulling faces and laughing together across the windshields. There is the smell of the end of summer, with wafts of humidity announcing the coming of autumn and the forecast of the sting of the black smoke coming from sawdust stoves in winter. Above all, is the smell of return that, in spite of doubts and hesitations, welcomes you like the hug of an old friend.
I will be part of a round table discussion on the 15th of June at The Triennale in Milan during the Milano Arch Week 2017.
Here are the details:
|15th June 2017||La Triennale – Giardino delle Sculture|
|16.30 / 17.30||TALK
THE ARCHITECTURE OF CONFLICTS:A DIALOGUE AROUND LANGUAGES, TERRITORIES AND REPRESENTATION
moderato da Camillo Boano con:
* Eyal Weizman,
* Amos Gitai,
* Francesca Recchia,
* Vento di Terra
Hope to see you there
Un concerto a Manchester; una gelateria a Baghdad; un sabato sera di divertimento nel cuore di Londra; un crocevia trafficato, una manifestazione, un funerale a Kabul. Morti e feriti a decine se non a centinaia. E tutto questo senza contare quel che ci sfugge del resto dell’Iraq, della Siria, della Nigeria e di tutti i paesi che a stento fanno notizia.
Sono giorni difficili di fatica e paura. La chiusura e il sospetto sembrano la soluzione migliore: sicuramente quella più semplice. Alzare i muri e chiudere le porte. Girare le spalle a tutto ciò che è altro da noi. Ma si tratta della scelta peggiore: vuol dire cadere nella trappola, giocare alle regole del terrore, cedere al ricatto.
Manchester, Baghdad, Kabul e Londra rispondono a gran voce al rischio di scivolare nella bigotteria.
Stamattina nella metropolitana di Londra un cartello diceva: “Tutti possono cedere, è la cosa più facile che il mondo possa fare. Ma la vera forza sta nel tenere i pezzi insieme quando nessuno si stupirebbe del collasso.” E la gelateria di Baghdad ha riaperto cinque giorni dopo essere stata attaccata. E Kabul, con le code per donare il sangue e gli appelli all’unità e i dottori che hanno lavorato senza sosta e i giornalisti che non hanno mai smesso di essere in prima linea, continua a ricordarci il valore senza prezzo dell’umanità.
In Afghanistan, dove una cultura cortese dà ancora valore al rito di scambiarsi i saluti, ho imparato uno degli auspici più belli: Mondana Bashid – che tu possa non essere mai stanco.
Non penso ci sia niente di meglio da augurarci a vicenda in un momento del genere quando la stanchezza, la paura, lo sfinimento, il senso di impotenza rischiano di prendere il sopravvento.
Mondana Bashid ai cittadini di Kabul, ai medici di emergency, ai miei amici afghani che credono nel futuro.a tutti e ciascuno di noi; a tutti quelli che, ovunque si trovino nel mondo, hanno ancora il coraggio di continuare a sperare e lavorano per rendere le cose un po’ migliori.
After the IS attack at a demonstration in Kabul on the 23rd of July 2016, I wrote a tribute to those who clean the city afterwords and allow us to move on with dignity. We all thought that it was worst attack since 2001 – until yesterday when Kabul was hit again. The figures of the attack are mind-numbing: 93 killed and more than 450 injured.
Today, sadly, my thoughts go again to those who clean the city.
The day after is always difficult.
Yesterday’s suicide attack has been the worst in Kabul since 2001–the victims were all civilians, all young: a terrible blast for the already fragile heart of the city.
With the sombering and heavy attitude that characterizes a national day of mourning, the city this morning woke up and went on with its business as usual. Kabul is a strong city, a city that reacts and doesn’t break. Her formidable resilience is one of the first things one discovers and falls in love with upon moving here. Life goes on no matter what, you roll your sleeves and move on–this is a way of looking at the world that is a profound source of inspiration.
This morning I woke up with a thought that I still can’t get out of my head: I keep thinking about those who clean the city, about those who work before day breaks to remove all the traces of a horror such as yesterday’s.
It is well known that Kabul’s strength is in her ability to start afresh every time, but we don’t know anything about those who make it possible, about those who scrub the blood off the asphalt, who collect what remains, who hose away all that has to disappear.
We probably owe them the fact that we can move on, to these silent restorers of normalcy; to those who, in Kabul or Baghdad or Srinagar, have the task of disguising smells, of remodelling the facade of the ordinary, of hiding the traces of traumas that are too difficult even to imagine.
I don’t know who they are, I don’t know their faces and I wonder what they may think – a prayer or a curse–while they clean up surrounded by the night. I thought, however, it was important to write about them – to exorcise that obsessive thought, but also to pay my respects to those who, probably without knowing, allow us to look ahead into the future.
Ho scritto un tributo a coloro che puliscono la città dopo gli attentati, in occasione della bomba del 23 luglio 2016 a Kabul. La loro presenza silenziosa ci dà la possibilità di guardare avanti con dignità.
Dopo l’attentato terribile di ieri in cui i morti confermati sono 93 e i feriti piu’ di 450, il mio pensiero torna di nuovo a loro.
l giorno dopo, si sa, è sempre difficile.
Quella di ieri è stata, per Kabul, la strage peggiore dal 2001 – tutti civili, tutti giovani, un colpo al cuore già fragile della città. Con la sobrietà che caratterizza un giorno di lutto nazionale, la città stamattina si è svegliata e ha ricominciato a vivere dopo un pomeriggio passato col fiato sospeso. Kabul è una città forte, una città che reagisce e non si lascia piegare. La sua resilienza formidabile è una delle prime cose che si scoprono quando si viene a vivere qui. La vita va avanti, nonostante tutto e tutti: ci si rimbocca le maniche e si guarda avanti – un modo di vedere il mondo che è una profonda fonte d’ispirazione.
Stamattina mi sono svegliata con un pensiero fisso che non riesco a togliermi dalla testa: continuo a pensare a chi pulisce la città, a quelli che in silenzio entrano in azione prima dell’alba e ripuliscono la città dalle tracce di un orrore come quello di ieri. Si dice che la forza di Kabul sta nel fatto che riesce sempre a ricominciare, ma non si dice mai niente di quelli che lo rendono possibile, di quelli che strofinano il sangue via dall’asfalto, di quelli che raccolgono i resti e con le pompe lavano via tutto quello che deve scomparire. E’ a loro che probabilmente si deve il fatto che si possa andare avanti, a questi silenziosi restauratori della normalità che, a Kabul come a Baghdad o a Srinagar, hanno il compito di mascherare gli odori, restaurare il sipario dell’ordinario, nascondere le tracce di traumi difficili da immaginare.
Non ho idea di chi siano o che faccia abbiano, non ho idea di che cosa possa passare loro per la testa, se una preghiera o una bestemmia, mentre strofinano avvolti dalla notte. Ho pensato che fosse importante scrivere di loro – per esorcizzare un pensiero ossessivo e per rendere omaggio a chi, forse senza saperlo, ci rende possibile guardare al futuro.
Questo testo è stato pubblicato su Q Code Mag